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After Vegas craziness, no rest for Sabres as red-hot Bruins hit town

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Sabres Golden Knights Hockey

Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson cannot stop a loose puck in front of the Vegas Golden Knights net during the second period at the KeyBank Center on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

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The schedule is doing the Buffalo Sabres no favors these days. Eichelfest has swept in and out of town, but any thought of the 82-game grind returning to some semblance of normalcy is out the window for at least another night.

That's because Saturday night's opponent in KeyBank Center is the Boston Bruins. They're No. 2 in the NHL behind Vegas, with a 12-2 record, and boast a league-best plus-25 goal differential.

Worse yet, no team in the league has the Sabres' number as bad as the Atlantic Division leaders do. The Sabres are 0-5-1 in their last six games against Boston  and 1-13-3 in the last 17 meetings overall. At home, the record vs. the Bruins is 1-7-1 in the last nine games downtown.

"It's all about us," coach Don Granato said after practice Friday in LECOM Harborcenter. "We know they're a great hockey team. Obviously, they've had our number. But the bottom line is, they're a top team, and Vegas and them are the two hottest teams in the league through the first 15 games. It's clear and evident that's the case. Our challenge is how do we target what needs to be improved on from last game? It's virtually a repeat scenario: You have an extremely prolific group of hockey players playing at a peak level."

"It's a new year and I know streaks like that go on, but every game is a new game," winger Jeff Skinner said. "Especially for us right now, we're just focused on ourselves and building off some of the good things in our game and trying to make things more consistent."

There was lots to unpack from Friday's practice proceedings:

• Captain Kyle Okposo was not on the ice for what the team termed as "general soreness," and his status will be re-evaluated Saturday morning. Okposo played 17:09 against Vegas, but appeared gimpy for a spell after blocking a shot off the ankle by Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore with about seven minutes left in the first period.

• With Okposo out, Granato reconnected perhaps his best line combination of the season, with Tage Thompson between Skinner and Alex Tuch. Jack Quinn, who sat out Thursday, was back in the mix on a speed line with Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka.

•  On defense, the most notable change re-paired Rasmus Dahlin with Owen Power, who had one up-and-down showing as a tandem in a loss last month to Montreal. Kale Clague appeared to be the odd man out.

Granato said he's looking for a spark with in-game line changes and often keeping an eye on potential matchups when he makes shifts between games. But in this case, he's also going for simplicity after a stretch of shuffling that has seemingly left lines struggling for consistency for large stretches.

"You saw Tuch back with Thompson and Skinner, and I think they're the most comfortable (trio)," Granato said. "Right now, that's how the lines are laying out, who we feel is the most comfortable with each guy in each scenario in hopes to not complicate anything."

The Sabres have lost four straight and have not been good enough defensively or in goal as of late. They've struggled mightily against opponents' star players during this stretch as Vegas' Jack Eichel and Carolina's Sebastian Aho have rung up hat tricks, while Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov had a four-point night.

Save for Thompson, who has three goals and an assist in the last three games, some of the Sabres' bigger guns have been silent. In the last four games, Skinner has a goal and an assist, Tuch has one assist and only seven shots on goal, Victor Olofsson has one goal and a minus-5 rating, while Okposo and Cozens have not scored. Cozens has four assists, but just two shots on goal in the four games.

"You have to be aware of who's on the ice, and we have to do a better job of that," Tuch said. "But I'm not saying, 'This guy has got this many points and I have to score this many times.' It's about doing whatever you can to help your team win. Sometimes you have to play a little more shutdown (defense) in certain situations, and sometimes you have to try to outscore certain lines."

"It's not going to be hard for some of our top players to elevate, and I say that respectfully," Granato said. "They haven't really been feeling it the last couple (games), with the exception of Thompson. I love the way he has taken charge. You hear it, you see it, you feel it on the bench. He is fully engaged in playing a much more direct and hard game."

Tuch said the Sabres have been playing from behind too much of late, and the numbers bear that out. Buffalo has given up the first goal in each of the last three games, and held a lead for a stretch of 3:15 Saturday at Tampa Bay. The Sabres never led against Vegas or Tuesday against Arizona. 

Playing from behind won't work against new coach Jim Montgomery's Bruins, who have winger Brad Marchand and defenseman Charlie McAvoy back in their lineup and a nine-goal, 22-point output in 14 games from winger David Pastrnak. Former Sabre Linus Ullmark is 10-1 in goal with a 1.95 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

"We played more to Vegas' game, turned a lot of pucks over," Tuch said. "The fans were really into it with Jack back in town, and Jack played a great game. The turnovers are something that happen and something we can clean up."

"The best players in the league are always going to get chances. That's why they're the best players," Skinner said. "The key is to not give them freebies, or at least give them as little as possible."

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

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